Building Babbage's Protocomputer


by Tim Moran

Technologist and author John Graham-Cumming is a man with a singular mission: He is set on executing a working version of Charles Babbage's heretofore unbuilt Analytical Engine, arguably the first idea for real computer, described by mathematician Babbage in the 1830s, in Britain.

Graham-Cumming--who has enlisted the help of Doron Swade, Babbage expert and curator of computing at Britain's Science Museum--calls the endeavor Plan 28, and it is now, more or less, underway. (Swade was responsible for the construction of Babbage's other device, the Difference Engine, which was more of a calculator than a computer, in that it is not programmable, which the Analytical Engine is (see All You Need Is Lovelace for a little sidebar about one of the world's first computer programmers.)

Don't expect to see this device working any time soon. Graham-Cumming still has much work to do before he and Swade can actually get down to the real work of building the thing. Some of this involves getting a charitable status for Plan 28, as well as generating all the necessary funds. But, some recent announcements mark the beginning of the beginning, at least.

Explained Graham-Cumming: "The project has been accepted into the portfolio of projects handled by the Computer Conservation Society. They will provide expert advice as needed." But, more important, as of September 12, 2011, the Science Museum, in London, has agreed to allow the team access to Babbage's original plans and notebooks, all of which the museum is going to digitize so they are accessible, first, to Plan 28 and, eventually, to the world.

Said Graham-Cumming: "Babbage's technical archive was bequeathed to his son, Henry Prevost, who donated it to The Science Museum. It is a tribute to generations of Science Museum archivists and curators that the archive is intact, listed and physically accessible. "

So 180 years later, the technology that one British mathematician imagined will be used to make his thoughts and plans available to those who wish to create something that could not be created in its own time.

Or as Graham-Cumming's put it: "Notebooks, letters, and plans that have been carefully preserved by the museum will see the light of day using technology that Babbage caught just a glimpse of when thinking up the Analytical Engine."

How's that for computing karma.